Nonverbal Communication

Problems of Notation

From its very beginning the new science of nonverbal communication was confronted with a major problem: the lack of a writing system which could have been used to produce an accurate account of the movement activity taking place in interpersonal encounters. There was, so to speak, no alphabet that would have permitted investigators to transcribe the nonverbal component of communication in the way one can transcribe speech. The first researchers attracted to this field thus found themselves stuck in a dilemma much like the one an illiterate would encounter: just as this hypothetical illiterate can hear and understand perfectly well what people say but is unable to note down what is said, early investigators could see perfectly well how the participants in a conversation move. They were even able to come up with a strong opinion as to what a particular movement they observed might mean to them. Yet because of the lack of a notation system equivalent to the alphabet, there was no way to convey what the movement, the meaning of which they believed they knew, actually looked like. 

The decisive breakthrough that finally made it possible to solve this nagging notation problem was based on the decision to resolve the complex stream of movement behaviour into a timeseries of momentary postural configurations (Bernese System for Coding of Nonverbal Interaction). The progress thus achieved within a comparatively short period of time makes it possible today for the intricate movements spontaneously displayed in interpersonal encounters to be transcribed into a written protocol so highly differentiated that the coded data permit for the reproduction of the original behaviour in every subtle detail.